The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death

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9780374533236: The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death

A Globe and Mail Best Books of the Year 2011 Title

At the heart of human experience lies an obsession with the nature of death. Religion, for most of history, has provided an explanation for human life and a vision of what comes after it. But in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such beliefs came under relentless pressure as new ideas―from psychiatry to evolution to communism―seemed to suggest that our fate was now in our own hands: humans could cease to be animals, defeat death, and become immortal.

In The Immortalization Commission, the acclaimed political philosopher and critic John Gray takes a brilliant and frightening look at humankind's dangerous striving toward a scientific version of immortality. Probing the parallel faiths of Bolshevik "God-builders," who sought to reshape the planet and psychical researchers, who believed they had evidence of a nonreligious form of life after death, Gray raises fascinating questions about how such beliefs threaten the very nature of what it means to be human. He looks to philosophers, journalists, politicians, charlatans, and mass murderers who all felt driven by a specifically scientific and modern worldview and whose revolt against death resulted in a series of experiments that ravaged whole countries.

An urgent examination of Darwin's post-religious legacy, The Immortalization Commission is an important work from "one of Britain's leading public intellectuals" (The Wall Street Journal).

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About the Author:

John Gray is the author of many critically acclaimed books, including Black Mass, Straw Dogs, and Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern. A regular contributor to The New York Review of Books, he is Emeritus Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The Immortalization Commission
1 Cross-correspondences It is an illusion that we were ever alive, Lived in the houses of mothers, arranged ourselves By our own motions in a freedom of air ... Even our shadows, their shadows, no longer remain. These lives lived in the mind are at an end. They never were ... Wallace Stevens  
The seance that Charles Darwin attended on 16 January 1874 at the house of his brother Erasmus at 6 Queen Anne Street, London, brought Darwin together with Francis Galton, anthropologist, eugenicist, Darwin's half cousin and one of the founders of the modern science of psychology, and George Eliot, the novelist who explored more deeply than any other the ambiguities of mid-Victorian life. All three were anxious that the rise of Spiritualism would block the advance of science. Darwin found the experience 'hot and tiring' and left before anything unusual happened - sparks were seen, table rapping heard and chairs lifted on to the table - and another seance was held,eleven days later, with his son George Darwin and T. H. Huxley acting as Darwin's representatives. After they reported that the mediums were using sleight of hand, Darwin wrote: 'now to my mind an enormous weight of evidence would be requisite to make one believe in anything beyond mere trickery ... I am pleased to think that I declared to all my family, the day before yesterday, that the more I thought of all that had happened at Queen Anne Street, the more convinced I was it was all imposture.' Others committed to scientific materialism had a similar reaction. Galton confessed he was 'utterly confounded' by some of the things he had witnessed at seances; but under the influence of Thomas Huxley, 'Darwin's bulldog' and a fervent materialist, Galton recanted, and in later life rejected Spiritualism entirely. Despite having a long interest in the equally doubtful creeds of phrenology and mesmerism, George Eliot was consistently hostile to Spiritualism, condemning it as 'either degrading folly, imbecile in the estimate of evidence, or else an impudent imposture'. Huxley, who coined the term 'agnosticism', was most dogmatic, declaring that he would refuse to investigate the phenomena even if they were genuine. The three missionaries of materialism would have been even more concerned had they known the future career of a fourth participant in the seance, F. W. H. Myers. The inventor of the word 'telepathy' and a pioneer in the investigation of subliminal mental processes, Frederic Myers went on to be one of the founders and presidentsof the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). Henry Sidgwick, one of the most respected thinkers of the Victorian age, was its first president. Later presidents included the philosophers William James (the elder brother of the novelist Henry James), Henri Bergson and the Nobel-prize-winning physiologist Charles Richet. The Society attracted writers and poets such as John Ruskin and Alfred Lord Tennyson and politicians and prime ministers such as W. E. Gladstone and Arthur Balfour. Leading scientists joined, two of whom - Lord Rayleigh, the Cavendish Professor of Experimental Physics at Cambridge who married Balfour's sister Evelyn, and Sir William Barrett, a physicist who believed he had demonstrated the reality of 'thought-transference' (in Myers' coinage, telepathy) - went on to become SPR presidents. The purpose of the SPR was to examine paranormal phenomena in 'an unbiased and scientific way'. These Victorian seekers believed the paranormal must be investigated using scientific methods, and demonstrated their commitment by exposing the fraudulent character of table-rapping, ectoplasm, spirit photography, letters materializing from mysterious mahatmas and the like. But their commitment was never to the whole range of scientific knowledge. It focused mainly on the question that preoccupied nearly all of them: whether death is the end for the conscious human individual. They pursued their inquiries indefatigably, continuing to communicate their findings to fellow researchers - if automatic writings are to be believed - even after they died. Myers died in a clinic in Rome in January 1901, where he had gone at the suggestion of William James to receive an experimental treatment for Bright's disease. According to the doctor who treated Myers, James and Myers had made 'a solemn pact' that 'whichever of them was to die first should send a message to the other as he passed over into the unknown - they believed in the possibility of such communication'. James, who was also at the clinic receiving treatment, was so grief-stricken that he could not bring himself to stay in the room where Myers was dying. Even so, he tried to receive the message his friend had promised to send: he sank down on a chair by the open door, his note-book on his knees, pen in hand, ready to take down the message with his usual methodical exactitude ... When I went away William James was still sitting leaning back in his chair, his hands over his face, his open note-book on his knees. The page was blank. A further attempt also seemed to draw a blank, when another sealed envelope Myers had left with the psychical investigator Sir Oliver Lodge was opened in December 1904. The letter failed to correspond with messages automatists claimed to have been receiving from Myers, though it did contain a reference to a formative episode in Myers' life, long kept secret, which would feature prominently in later scripts. The efforts of Sidgwick and Myers to communicate from beyond the grave had come to nothing. That did not dampen the hope that he would continue the attempt. Myers was among several ostensible authors of a series of interconnected automatic writings produced over several decades by mediums in different parts of the world, seemingly with the aim of demonstrating the fact that human personality survived the death of the body. Another ostensible author of the scripts was Edmund Gurney, a gifted musician, classical scholar and SPR founder-member. Gurney suffered a devastating loss when three of his sisters were drowned in an accident on the Nile, and he died in 1888 at the age of forty-one, most likely by accident, while using chloroform. A third was Sidgwick himself, one of the presiding sages of the Victorian age. Other purported communicators included Francis Maitland Balfour, a Cambridge biologist and brother of Arthur Balfour, who died in a climbing accident in 1882; Annie Marshall, the wife of a cousin of Myers with whom Myers had fallen in love, who committed suicide in 1876; Mary Lyttelton, with whom Arthur Balfour had been in love, who died of typhus in 1875; and Laura Lyttelton, Mary's sister-in-law, who died in childbirth in 1886. The 'cross-correspondences' seem to have begun in 1901, when the first of a number of practitioners of automatic writing, all of them women but only one a professional medium, began to receive texts claiming to come from Myers. The automatists included Mrs Verrall, the wife of a Cambridge classical scholar; Mrs Verrall's daughter Helen, wife of W. H. Salter, a lawyer who became president of the SPR; 'Mrs Holland', a pseudonym usedby psychical researchers to conceal the identity of Alice Fleming, the wife of the British army officer John Fleming stationed in India and sister of Rudyard Kipling, who is believed to have authored or co-authored some of Kipling's early Indian tales; 'Mrs Willett', the pseudonym of Winifred Coombe-Tennant, suffragist and British representative at the League of Nations, who took up automatic writing while trying to communicate with a beloved daughter who had died; and the one professional medium, Mrs Piper. It was Mrs Verrall who, on 5 March 1901, received the first decipherable script. Though at that point doubtful of the reality of survival, she had begun practising automatic writing earlier that year in the belief that if Myers had survived she could be a channel for his post-mortem communications. Over the following years a number of other automatists joined her in receiving texts claiming to be authored by Myers. In 1902 Mrs Verrall received messages that seemed to link up with those received by Mrs Piper, then in America, and in 1903 'Mrs Holland', at the time in India, sent a script addressed to Mrs Verrall in Cambridge. 'Mrs Holland', who suffered a mental breakdown in 1898 that the Kipling family attributed to her experiments in automatic writing, had given up the practice for several years. She resumed after reading Myers' book Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death, in which Myers had suggested that only clear evidence of intention on the part of a group of people acting together from beyond the grave could ever prove survival beyond reasonabledoubt. Not long after, 'Mrs Holland' began to receive scripts signed 'FWHM'. Leading psychical researchers soon came to believe that Myers was engaged in the experiment he had proposed in his book. In 1908 Eleanor Sidgwick, the wife of Henry Sidgwick and also a leading psychical researcher, asked: have we got into relation with minds which have survived bodily death, and endeavouring by means of the cross-correspondences to provide evidence of their operation? If this ... hypothesis be the true one it would mean that intelligent cooperation between other than embodied human minds and our own, in experiments of a new kind intended to prove continued existence, has become possible. Even when they were themselves firmly convinced, psychical researchers knew that none of the phenomena they studied proved survival to be a fact. Only clearly interlinked communications coming through several channels over a period of time could show that post-mortem minds were at work. The result was a deeply puzzling body of texts, in which - as one psychical researcher who studied it carefully wrote - 'the material to be investigated experimented on itself'. The theory that the scripts contained cross-correspondences designed to give proof of life after death was first set out in June 1908 by Alice Johnson, a member of the SPR known for her critical outlook: The characteristic of these cases - or at least some of them - is that we do not get in the writing of one automatist anything like a mechanical verbatim reproduction of phrases in the other; we do not even get the same idea expressed in different ways, - as might well result from direct telepathy between them. What we get is a fragmentary utterance in one script, which seems to have no particular point or meaning, and another fragmentary utterance in the other of an equally pointless character; but when we put the two together, we see that they supplement one another, and there is apparently one idea underlying both, but only partially expressed in each. ... Now, granting the possibility of communication, it may be supposed that within the last few years a certain group of persons has been trying to communicate with us, who are sufficiently well instructed to know all the objections that reasonable sceptics have urged against all the previous evidence and sufficiently intelligent to realise to the full all the force of these objections. It may be supposed that these persons have invented a new plan - the plan of cross-correspondences - to meet the sceptics' objections. The automatists, investigators and ostensible authors of the scripts, though at times separated by thousands of miles, were linked in many ways. Mrs Verrall had known Sidgwick, Myers and Gurney, while Mrs Salter and Mrs Piper had known Myers, who married one of the sisters of Winifred Coombe-Tennant's husband. All the automatists were familiar, in differing degrees, with the main communicators. Sidgwick's wife Eleanor, who became the SPR president and studied the cross-correspondences closely over many years, was Arthur Balfour's older sister,while Gerald Balfour, also an SPR president, who analysed the cross-correspondences at length while playing a hidden role in them, was Arthur Balfour's younger brother. Jean Balfour, Gerald Balfour's daughter-in-law, became the main archivist of the scripts. The people involved in the cross-correspondences belonged in the topmost stratum of Edwardian society. Many of those involved had suffered agonizing bereavements; some had long-hidden personal relationships. The scripts became a vehicle for unresolved personal loss, and for secret love. Some of the many thousands of pages that flowed from the automatists had to do with issues bearing on the question of survival, such as the relations of the mind with the brain. The project that was revealed in the automatic writings went beyond proving that the human mind survived death, however. The scripts were also the vehicle for a programme of world-salvation, involving a liaison between two of the people most closely implicated in their production - a Story and a Plan, as the scripts put it, to intervene in history and deliver humanity from chaos. The involvement of leading figures in psychical research posed a powerful challenge to scientific materialism. Darwin was in no doubt about the threat. The man he acknowledged as the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, had concluded that the human mind could not have developed simply as a result of evolution. Wallace's response to Spiritualism was in some ways highly credulous - he was an ardent defender of 'spirit photography', for example. Worse, from Darwin'spoint of view, he described Spiritualism as 'a science based solely on facts', declaring that he knew that 'non-human intelligences exist - that there are minds disconnected from a physical brain, - that there is, therefore, a spiritual world ... and such knowledge must modify my views as to the origin and nature of human faculty'. Darwin was dismayed when, in April 1869, in an article in the Quarterly Review, Wallace suggested that the human mind could only be the work of an 'Overruling Intelligence'. Before the article appeared Darwin had written to Wallace, 'I shall be intensely curious to read the Quarterly: I hope you have not murdered too completely your own and my child.' That was just what Wallace had done. Though they admired and respected one another, Darwin and Wallace were very different personalities. From a poor family, self-taught and always hard up, Wallace was fearless in following his own line of thinking. His travels had left him with the conviction that life among primitive peoples was more civilized than that of the poor in advanced countries, so he became a political radical and advocated land nationalization. His conversion to Spiritualism was part of a lifetime of heresy. The result was that Wallace was soon virtually forgotten, while Darwin's ingrained caution secured him a reputation for iconoclasm that only increased with time. Wallace's conversion to Spiritualism posed a challenge to Darwin's entire enterprise. Aiming to overturn the belief that 'man is divided by an insuperable barrier from all the lower animals in his mental faculties', Darwin argued in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) that the most distinctively 'human' faculties evolved from animal abilities. Wallace wanted to rebuild the barrier between humans and other animals that Darwin had pulled down. In effect Wallace was advancing an early version of the theory of Intelligent Design, applied to the human mind. Wallace's theory may not be very plausible. A glance at any human should be enough to dispel any notion that it is the work of an intelligent being. Still, Wallace had raised questions that Darwin was extremely reluctant to confront. Darwin avoided public discussion of his religious beliefs. He seems to have moved from theism to agnosticism mainly as a result of the death of his beloved daughter Annie, rather than as a consequence of...

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